“From the earliest days of medicine, women have been considered inferior versions of men.” – Gabrielle Jackson.
For as long as medicine has been around, it has been created by men, for men. Medical research is significantly often carried out on male animals due to hormonal fluctuations in female animals causing discrepancies. Further, the female body has been treated largely as a reproductive body first and undiagnosed female health issues have been reduced to part of a “hysteria” discourse, first coined by Freud in the 1800s. Therefore, inequality in medicine stems from both a lack of knowledge regarding gender specific medical issues and a negative portrayal of hormonal differences between the sexes.
After the progress of medicine in recent years, you might think that such inequality wouldn’t still exist. However, in regards to female health issues that are still not completely understood, such as endometriosis and vaginismus, many GPs are quick to blame women’s psychological and hormonal differences for their unresolved symptoms, with Gabrielle Jackson writing in an article for The Guardian that one male GP said to her: “I’ve never had a fibromyalgia patient who wasn’t batshit crazy.”
Attitudes such as these have never been clearer than when it comes to female sexual health. For decades, periods have been treated like an illness to be ashamed of, and the individual experience has been quantified by those who have never had one. When research recently found that, for some people, heavy periods can cause cramps as painful as having a heart attack, it’s no wonder that society started to become more and more concerned with the medical practice surrounding women’s sexual health.
Recently, a tweet claiming that taking a higher dose of Ibuprofen (600mg) can reduce menstrual flow by up to 50% and delay periods by up to two days went viral. Although this information has seemingly been around for years, and many medical professionals claim it is a completely safe method for healthy women to control their menstrual flow, many people were shocked to find out that they could have been using this cheap and easy method to reduce their period’s effects for years. For many of us, we might wonder why we’ve suffered through heavy flow days, spent days hauled up in bed with cramps, missing out on date nights, trips to the beach or nights out with the girls.
Which begs the question, why now? Has the longstanding tradition of male dominance in medical practice meant that we are only now beginning to overcome the taboo around periods?
These questions have led me to address not only the disregard of female pain in medical research but female pleasure too. It is a well-known fact that sex education has treated, and continues to treat, the female body as solely reproductive, with students learning about the importance of the male orgasm from a young age, but never the female orgasm.
These attitudes pervade the information available on the NHS website, which seems to still treat the female orgasm as a somewhat difficult subject. For example, whilst there is a deeper exploration of the issues men may face during sex, recommending ways to avoid premature ejaculation, for instance, through masturbation, women are immediately urged to seek professional medical advice. This suggests greater complexity in resolving issues with female pleasure, perhaps due to a gender imbalance in research about sexual pleasure. Whilst female masturbation continues to be seen as a taboo subject by many, it is no wonder that many females feel marginalised within their own bodies. Moreover, one of the reasons listed for a woman being unable to achieve an orgasm was due to her inability to “let go”, suggesting a relationship between female psychiatry and sexuality that supports Freud’s outdated ideas of female hysteria. Only now has research begun to alter our outlook on female sexual health, examining the biological ways in which the female orgasm might be affected on an individual basis, via blood flow for example. But is it a case of too little, too late when this hysteria discourse has been so prevalent in medical practice throughout history?
New information has also recently surfaced that the combined pill could be shrinking the hypothalamus, an important hormone release centre in the brain, in people who take it. Although these claims are yet to be fully substantiated, they’ve given rise to questions about the way in which research into women’s sexual health has been treated. If it’s taken so long to develop safe alternative male contraceptives, then why have the health risks toward women not been as extensively researched too? And should this kind of information be readily available, even so early in the research process, to women taking this kind of contraceptive?
For decades, the development of female contraceptives have been prioritised in medical research, suggesting that it is mainly regarded as the woman’s responsibility to prevent pregnancy. This again indicates that the female body is regarded as a predominantly reproductive subject, and thus that sexual pleasure is reserved mainly for men. Whilst a male contraceptive pill is now in the works, we must still ask ourselves why it has taken so long to happen – and will it effectively change our attitudes toward the role of the female body in sexual practices?
It seems that the medical profession is slowly trying to fill the gaps in this knowledge and hopefully in doing so can help reduce the taboo around female sexual health for good.
Farewell Mr Freud.
For a more in-depth exploration of endometriosis specifically, check out Emma Vernon’s article, ‘Endometriosis: One in Ten’.